Although philosophers have been studying aesthetics for a long time, examination of philosophical and ethical questions surrounding the nature and use of film is a more recent phenomenon.1 Last spring our department at Boston University added a new course to its list of offerings: philosophy and film. For the non-philosophically inclined, a course in philosophy and film may be one of the best, easily accessible avenues through which one can be introduced to the kind of analytical thinking that philosophers do. For those people who have a natural bent towards rigorous, analytical thinking, making film the subject of inquiry provides a fun way to do philosophy that has relevance to something to which nearly everyone can relate.
I think when people signed up for the course, many thought that it would be a so-called "gut course" that wouldn’t require much hard work or thinking. I suspect that many students probably assumed that a course in philosophy and film would consist of just watching movies and talking about them. And it did, to a certain extent, involve watching and discussing movies, although the film viewings were largely done outside of class, reserving classroom time for analyzing philosophical texts about film and art. The course, however, was clearly not just a course about philosophy in film. If that were the case, then indeed it might have entailed watching movies and debating about the relevant philosophical questions—e.g., What is reality (The Matrix)? Do we sometimes value truth over happiness or lack of pain (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)? Can machines replace humans (A.I., Space Odyssey 2001)? Is the future set or do people have free will (The Minority Report)? The list could go on and on. These questions and movies no doubt provide great fodder for a class on philosophy in film, and I do not mean to dismiss how valuable and interesting thinking about such questions and films can be. It is important, however, to note that philosophy of film refers to something different.
Studying philosophy of film gives rise to questions such as2: What counts as a film? What might the defining criteria be? What is the "purpose" of film (if there is any single purpose)? Whether and why should film should be considered an art form? Whose responsibility is it for how a film is interpreted or received? How are films categorized and how does this affect our expectations and enjoyment of film? The list goes on. Of course, examples of particular films can be springboards from which to discuss some of the issues outlined above, but a course in philosophy of film is more about making distinctions and mounting arguments about film as a medium than it is just commenting on how a particular plot line illustrates a certain philosophical concept.
Although many would consider film (whether recorded on video or celluloid) a type of art, it is an art form like no other. For one, it often incorporates so many different kinds of media—photography, music, words/scripts, editing—in a way that other art forms do not. Also, while we can say of much art that it was done just for art’s sake, it seems less clear that a film would or could be made just for film’s sake. Usually films are intended for distribution and consumption by a particular audience. This suggests that, more than with traditional art, there is a purpose (or purposes) to film. Deciding what that purpose is, however, is complicated, given that there are so many different kinds of film. In fact, before launching into questions about film’s purpose, it seems imperative to have a definition, or at least a working definition, of film.
Coming up with such a definition is not easy, however, when one considers all the potential candidates for films that the definition would seem to have to include—e.g., documentary film, YouTube videos, short entertainment films, horror films, etc.3 The problem is that when one tries to apply criteria that are necessary for something to be categorized as a film, there inevitably will be the dual problem of excluding what some think should be counted as a film, or including something that people typically don’t consider to be film.
For example, to borrow a criterion that Noel Carroll proposes, if one necessary characteristic of films is that they contain a series of moving images then, as Carroll notes, that would exclude the film La Jetée.4 On the other hand, if we were to say that a film doesn’t have to have moving images, but that anything that does consist of moving images is a film, then that may include things that most people would not want to consider a film, such as a screen saver or a video game. If nailing down an adequate definition of film is so difficult, it is doubtful that we will be able to talk about what "the" sole purpose of film is, because there are so many different kinds of film. Moreover, even if one could somehow propose a set of criteria that identifies films and only films, it does not follow from that that there need be only one purpose of a certain film, or of film in general.
Regardless of what particular topic I am teaching, I try to show students what ethical theories or issues might be relevant. One ethical issue that arises with thinking about film and its purpose is the production and use of propaganda film. Consider Triumph of the Will, a film about Hitler and the Nazi Party ostensibly dealing with the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. Although Hitler commissioned filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to produce the film, Riefenstahl herself argued that the film should not be regarded as political propaganda because it was not her intention that the film be such. She maintained that she was just an outsider whom the Nazi Party hired to shoot a documentary; what purpose(s) the film in fact served was beyond her control. The film thus raises the following (among many) general questions (questions that we might wish to consider when contemplating works in other media as well): Whose responsibility is it for the effect that a certain film has? How much do an author or filmmaker’s intentions matter for how his or her work should be evaluated?
Many have criticized Triumph of the Will because it glorifies Hitler and the Nazi Party. Others have praised the film for the ground it broke in filmic technique. What this shows is that we can evaluate films on multiple levels. On one level, we can consider the content of the film qua documentary—its message and historical accuracy. Such observations are separate from judgments about the aesthetic or technical qualities of a film, e.g., a filmmaker’s choices in casting, music, camera movement, use of lighting, special effects, etc. In the case of Triumph of the Will there can be a tension between ethics and aesthetics. Some may say that the immoral content of a film should detract from its value and our enjoyment of the film. Others argue that we can separate the moral and technical aspects of a film;5 thus, it is perfectly conceivable, in other words, that one could find the content of a propaganda film to be flawed or immoral, and yet think that there are other artistic qualities that the film has which are worthy of admiration. In addition, if a film’s content is deemed unethical, that raises a further question: Should films be subject to the same sanctions we adopt when we discover works in other media forms to be unethical, or does film somehow enjoy a special status precisely because it is understood as being a form of art?
At the end of the day (or semester), my goal is to show students how to think critically about an aspect of film or art that they hadn’t intellectually questioned before. I hope to show them not to take for granted how works—whether of film, other art, literature, etc.—are categorized and used. In trying to define boundaries, we often see more of the intricacies that make it difficult, yet intriguing, to think about how to create, receive or influence the art and media around us.
1. For a good general introduction to some basic questions that have interested philosophers writing about film, see Thomas Wartenberg’s entry "Philosophy of Film" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/film/
2. For a comprehensive anthology on philosophy of film, see Noel Carroll and Jinhee Choi (eds.), Philosophy of Film and Motion Pictures. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006).
3. Noel Carroll, "Defining the Moving Image" in Noel Carroll and Jinhee Choi (eds.), Philosophy of Film and Motion Pictures (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006) (pp.113-133).
4. La Jetée is a short French film that is made up almost entirely of still black and white photographs accompanied by narration.
5. Mary Devereaux, "Beauty and Evil: The Case of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will" in Noel Carroll and Jinhee Choi (eds.), Philosophy of Film and Motion Pictures (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006) (pp. 346-361).